CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Massey Energy's top safety officer and at least five other company officials have refused to answer questions from government investigators who are trying to determine the cause of the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.
Elizabeth Chamberlin, Massey's vice president for safety, and the other five officials invoked their Fifth Amendment rights and will not appear for interviews with state and federal investigators, according to documents obtained under the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
Attorneys for the Massey officials formalized their plans in letters submitted between Oct. 6 and Oct. 20 to the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training.
The other officials who have declined to testify were Jamie Ferguson, vice president of Massey subsidiary Performance Coal; Wayne Persinger, a general manager at Upper Big Branch; Rick Nicolau, a maintenance chief at the mine; and mine foremen Rick Foster and Gary May.
Lawyers for all six officials said in letters to the state that their clients have done nothing wrong, but do not believe the investigation interviews are being conducted properly.
A deal between Massey officials and the Manchin administration allowed company employees to invoke their Fifth Amendment rights by letter, instead of being compelled by subpoena to appear for interviews and do so in person.
An interview schedule obtained by the Gazette indicates that at least five additional Massey officials have invoked their Fifth Amendment rights, but so far state regulators have refused to release the letters in which they formally confirmed that decision.
The refusal of Massey management personnel to answer questions could be another stumbling block in the government's investigation of the April 5 explosion that killed 29 miners in the Raleigh County mine.
The development also further fuels the ongoing Massey campaign to discredit the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, and adds the independent investigation team appointed by Gov. Joe Manchin to those Massey officials say are acting improperly in the disaster inquiry.
Chamberlin's letter to the state, for example, alleges that MSHA is using its investigation to "divert attention and blame from itself and onto others" and charges that members of Manchin's independent team have "bullied and abused" some witnesses.
Philip Inglima, Chamberlin's lawyer, declined in a brief phone interview Thursday to provide any examples of bullying or abuse by the independent team, and longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer, appointed by Manchin to lead that team, flatly denied the allegation.
"We have been respectful of all of the people who have come before us," McAteer said. "There are some things that are difficult, because we have lost 29 individuals. It's unfortunate that we are in this circumstance, but we're trying to get to the truth."